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Toeing the Power Line

With cash-poor utilities crying crisis, here are ways to conserve energy (and money) in your home.


Hey, you skeptical, conspiracy-minded California consumer, you! Is your refrigerator running? Better go catch it then--or at least try slowing it down. Maybe even consider replacing it with a more efficient Energy Star model.

Also look at your VCR, PC, hot water heater, clothes dryer, hot tub, water bed, aquarium, swimming pool, imported Italian espresso maker and thermostat, which you're probably keeping at a frostbite-inducing 72 degrees during these brutal months you call "winter" and those of us from the Northeast refer to as "summer minus the smog alerts." (And they say Californians don't know the meaning of sacrifice.) Oh, and don't forget to unplug that 53-inch monster TV your kids persuaded you to buy this Christmas so the whole family could bond while watching "Rugrats."

No, this isn't the script for a prank phone call. It's some simple advice on how to handle California's rapidly escalating power crisis by curbing your kilowatt appetite, upgrading your appliances and avoiding energy "leaks" from those indispensable kitchen thingamajigs and "home entertainment" centers that resemble the monolith in "2001: A Space Odyssey."

These and other "hidden" power costs could be short-circuiting your family's energy budget more than you realize. But you'll probably realize it soon. As the state's cash-strapped utilities beg for relief and Gov. Gray Davis rants at out-of-state suppliers while exhorting the citizenry to cut personal consumption by 7%, one ugly truth looms large: Your utility bill likely will be going up, no matter what happens in Sacramento or Washington.

A recent Los Angeles Times Poll taken before last week's rolling blackouts indicated that more than half those surveyed don't believe a power shortage really exists, with many blaming the current crisis on corporate "greed" and political shell games. But whatever your quotient of cynicism, we have a problem, Houston. As spot blackouts continue, relatively small increments of power could decide whether your house goes dark.

"In the case of the San Francisco blackout, something on the order of 100 megawatts would've made the difference," says Steven Nadel, deputy director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, a Washington, D.C., think tank, referring to one recent outage. "Clearly, we need bigger efforts as well. But those little things that people do can help."

The good news is that you can significantly reduce your home energy costs without having to live like Arctic nomads. "It's not just changing rates that can lower your bills, it's also changing usage," says James Cavallo, associate editor of Home Energy magazine and an economics instructor at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

In fact, the best way to motivate suspicious Californians to conserve may not necessarily be flag-waving appeals to save the planet but pitches aimed straight at the wallet.

"There's always an energy crisis, but to the American mind it's always a pocketbook crisis," says Lisa Matsuura Walker, who manages the Real Goods store in West Los Angeles, which sells renewable energy products. "There are people who stumble in saying, 'How do I cut back on energy consumption?' Well, that depends on how many kids you have playing Nintendo and whether you have the most inefficient refrigerator in town that was handed down by your grandmother."

Basically, experts say, you've got 2 1/2 options for helping to keep your energy bills low and your porch lights on in the coming months: cut back on high energy-use activities; invest in more energy-efficient appliances and home technology; or adopt some combination of the two measures that meets your budget and lifestyle needs.

The first strategy costs little or nothing but could require altering your habits or investing a bit of upfront time and effort. Many of these ideas derive from the standard eco-gospel that dates from the 1973 OPEC oil crunch. These energy-saving tips have been hard-wired onto our brains like the Pledge of Allegiance: Take shorter showers; switch off little-used TVs and VCRs; run your dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer only when they're full--preferably during off-peak hours; lower your thermostat; install low-flow shower heads; block off any chimneys not in use; turn off lights in unoccupied rooms; seal drafty doors and windows with weather stripping and caulk; seal and insulate ducts in attics and crawl spaces.

If all else fails, remember the First Commandment of Home Energy-Saving: Thou Shalt Wear an Extra Sweater.

The second approach to home energy conservation requires spending a bit of money in the expectation of recouping your investment over time. One simple step is replacing high-use incandescent lights (say, in kitchens and family rooms) with compact fluorescent lamps, which use less energy. Costing about $25 apiece, CFLs can fit into standard light fixtures and have average life expectancies of 6,000 hours, up to 10 times that of incandescents.

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